Early on in Isn’t It Romantic, the main character Natalie (Rebel Wilson) and her assistant/close friend Whitney (Betty Gilpin) are having a disagreement about romantic comedies. Natalie was divested of any illusions about the magic of romance by her mother, who convinced her at an early age that Natalie was no Julia Roberts. Her mom’s “rom-com fireworks don’t happen to girls like us” parental lesson culminates in Natalie being told, “Someone may marry you for a visa. That’s about it.” Whitney, meanwhile, is a firm believer in meet-cutes, tropes, and living happily ever after. The argument – a clear proxy for the larger cultural disagreement about rom-coms – can be summarized in two lines: Natalie tells Whitney, “It’s unhealthy,” to which Whitney replies, “It’s nice to be reminded of how beautiful and full of love life can be.”
The mission of Isn’t It Romantic is to show that both of those things can be true. Blind devotion to knights in shining armor or damsels in distress can be as dangerous as believing you’re going to get a letter from Hogwarts. But love and romance, in a variety of iterations, absolutely do exist in the world.
In order to reconcile these two principles, Isn’t It Romantic turns to a genre that it both critiques and validates – and again, those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Of course, in typical rom-com fashion, the story comes with a zany premise: Natalie is not living her best life. She designs parking lots, and despite the fact that she’s great at it, her co-workers take advantage of her, her boss doesn’t respect her, and she doesn’t have the self-confidence to realize that her friend Josh (Adam Devine) is in love with her. In an incident related to a mugging, Natalie suffers a head injury, but luckily this is a rom-com, so instead of brain damage, the side effect is that she wakes up in the bizzaro romance version of her life. Or, as Natalie calls it, “the Matrix for lonely women.” Suddenly, her neighborhood is full of cupcake shops and flowers. Her now enormous apartment contains a gigantic wine rack and a freezer full of gourmet ice cream. Her every move is soundtracked by Vanessa Carlton. And the obnoxious client who thought she was only around to take coffee orders (Liam Hemsworth) is now an Australian charmer who finds her constantly “beguiling.”
As a person who believes deeply in the virtues of a well-told romance, I went into Isn’t It Romantic concerned that it would be stupid at best, or mocking its audience at worst. It is neither, and I might have been more optimistic if I’d realized that one of the writers for the film, Dana Fox, was also behind the criminally underrated and short-lived TV show Ben & Kate. Fox and her co-writers, Erin Cardillo and Katie Silberman, clearly know the genre; they appreciate its potential while understanding the potential pitfalls. Through the script, there are twists on lines from modern romance classics (“You had me at helicopter”) and the writers poke fun at harmless tropes like kissing in the rain or a climactic scene at a wedding. At the same time, the film points out some of the most nefarious patterns in rom-coms of the recent past: women who work together can only be adversaries, and gay best friends are given no life/identity of their own.
Ironically, the film’s most significant shortcoming is another of comedy’s (romantic and otherwise) most dangerous shortcuts: the caricature of a fat woman. Although Natalie is gorgeous throughout most of movie, the script makes it clear that even at her most confident, she thinks of her appearance as a shortcoming. In a particularly regrettable scene, she’s told that she’s built like a cement truck, which is meant as a joke, but it’s both cringeworthy and lazy.
That aspect of the script is a disappointing outlier in a film that’s otherwise well-paced and clever. Wilson and Devine have well-established comedic and romantic chemistry given their Pitch Perfect history, which makes the happy surprise of this film the chemistry Wilson has with Hemsworth. Hemsworth is the perfect stereotype of a charming love interest, but he also has the comedic skill to pull off lines like, “Have you heard of a man called Ghandi?” and a scene in which he writes all 10 digits of his number on 10 different rose petals and gracefully hands them in a disorganized bunch to Natalie. When she points out that there are over 3 million permutations of the 10 numbers, he smoothly but nonsensically reminds her, “Yes, but there’s only one you.” It’s absurd, and Natalie isn’t particularly charmed by it, but it’s a joke that’s funny and well-suited to the movie.
The film’s other revelation is Brandon Scott Jones, as Natalie’s rom-com world gay best friend Donnie, who, as Natalie points out, is likely “setting gay rights back 100 years” with his checklist of gay-man-from-the-90s stereotypes. Jones’ depiction of Donnie is light-hearted, but casual jokes about his one-dimensional nature – he’s happy to drop her off on his way “to no plans whatsoever” – are good, if gentle, reminders that rom-coms have largely failed the LGBT population by relegating them to characters who exist to serve the plot.
Subverting the romantic comedy genre while so clearly and unapologetically living in its space is a tough thing to do. Isn’t It Romantic manages it with minimal missteps. A tight script, great work by Rebel Wilson, and a surprisingly strong supporting cast offer a charming reminder that even in the real world, there’s space for both romance and comedy.